Black Restaurant Community Talks Next Steps for Anti-Racism

 (Evan Morsell, Sharome Skinner, Bethanie Hines)

Since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, protests have erupted in cities across the country and throughout the Bay Area. As our communities face this latest wave of racist violence in the shadow of a pandemic, the most vulnerable of our populations are put at even greater risk. Possibly at the center of all of this is food and the role it plays in dictating who can rise up and who cannot. From restaurants supplying food to protesters to its history of exploitive labor and exclusive rights to own farmland, food could be considered a medium of conversation for race and injustice. 

Because of this, many restaurant owners and food industry personnel have spoken out on racial inequality within the food system. We spoke to black-owned restaurants from ‘Check, Please! Bay Area’ seasons past and present to hear how owners and employees are addressing this moment and envisioning the path forward.

Leilani Baugh, chef and owner of Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen:

Shows Leilani Baugh at her restaurant Magnolia Street
Chef and owner Leilani Baugh at her restaurant Magnolia Street Wine Bar & Kitchen in West Oakland. (Sharome Skinner)

I am saddened, I'm disheartened, I'm angry. I'm all those things. Especially as it relates to what's been going on with George Floyd and basically all the deaths at the hands of police all around the country. 

The people of West Oakland absolutely need support, like the people that live in the hotel above us, it is just so important that they get the support that they need. We have 150 residents on top of us, and we have provided free meals to them. We want to make sure that our seniors are fed, we want to make sure that our homeless population is okay. We've done community outreach where we've fed some essential workers. So we've just been trying to play our part wherever we possibly can.

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We need to go through a time of building. We need to go through a time of healing and repair. And that is my hope for Oakland in general and all across the country, is that we need healing and we need the leaders and the healers to come out and work together so that our communities can start getting back on track.

I named [the restaurant] Magnolia Street because I grew up around the corner on Magnolia Street. West Oakland was a hub for music, culture and food, especially here in the California Hotel. There were three clubs in this block right here. And at the California Hotel there were two, The Back Door and the Zanzibar, both hosted live music almost every night. Top name artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Eartha Kitt, Bill Pickett, they all played here. And they would stay upstairs because it was one of the only places where African Americans could stay. So we just want to start pumping back into the community, especially for West Oakland, and be able to be someplace where people can come and listen to amazing music, drink awesome wine, and eat great food. That's the goal and I think it's going to happen.

Nigel Jones, chef and owner of Kingston 11 Cuisine:

Nigel Jones in the kitchen at his restaurant Kingston 11 Cuisine in Oakland. (Bethanie Hines)

I'm sad on a lot of levels as to what's going on. Constantly having this conversation and narrative about who we are as people of color in this country, and wanting to see things level out where there are equal opportunity and respect, through business, personal lives, and education for people of color, and black folks in general. And it's a constant struggle. And as you see people like George Floyd get killed, and just sat on by a police officer for nine minutes, and yelling to say, "I can't breathe," It's distressing. And one of the key things to me, as a human being, watching that video, and I hear him call for his mother. His mother is already dead, and he's calling for his mother. And so that means that he's reaching out to his ancestors. He's reaching out to people who love and care and know him personally because he doesn't feel seen. And that represents a lot of us, when we're interacting in public, where sometimes we feel that we're not seen. That's a frustrating situation.

And myself as a business owner, getting out in the community, creating jobs for people of color, feeding people of all different races and nationalities, you know, I feel good about that. But I also know, once I leave that restaurant and walk out that door on my way home, I'm just another black person. And I'm just as likely to be pulled over for anything and treated the same way as George Floyd. It's not distant or separate from me. I'm part of that. 

I don't have to respond to the protests, and what they're doing and supporting that, because I'm living that every day. And that's what Kingston 11 represents through me, is what's our mission? Why are we existing? We exist to provide nourishing, delicious food to our community. We exist to create jobs, opportunity to our community, in an industry that you typically don't see people of color as ... thrive in lower-class restaurants. So, as we talked about these things in terms of police brutality, it's about the systemic racism, and how people have low expectations of people of color in business, and et cetera, et cetera.

And it's throughout the entire structure of America. We're dealing with this same level of injustice in this industry as a hospitality restaurant industry. There are young black kids who are going to college and doing good things for themselves. They need employment, and restaurants, black-owned restaurants, are the ones who schedule, still go to school, and still keep lifting themselves up. And that's what we represent every day. So we're on this journey every day. This is not about the protest today or tomorrow, that will be gone next week or the week after. We're in it everyday.

Seven years now, we've had this restaurant. We've been dealing with this for seven years, and we're going to keep doing it. It's not about getting recognition. We hold our head steady every day that we get up and we do it, what we do, because we are striving for excellence in this industry. That is similar to what black folks deal with on the street, in any other profession, anywhere, in college, schools, education, nursing, legal profession, that we want to be lawyers, you know, we're faced with the same thing, and I'm dealing with it as a black-owned restaurant. So the protesters, people who are protesting, are people who are my customers. 

These people are everyday folks, including my wife, who works in social justice, legal framework, policy changes, impacting people's economic lives every day.. So these are people who are doing other things every day to lift up themselves, their community, and just being good, contributing citizens. So this is not just because of this week, as I mentioned before, or next week. These people are on the frontline every day, lifting up their community and fighting back against an unjust system. And a lot of times it's not noticed because it's not on the TV and it's not in a sensational way, which the only time the media notices, is when we're at a situation like this, where the injustice is so raw, when a man's life is taken away from him, and he's not seen as a brother, as a father, as somebody in the community. He's just treated like a dog. It hurts us. So when they see us in places, enjoying ourselves and looking normal, they don't recognize that we still have to deal with this. 

We're not asking for handouts. We're asking for, to be seen, to be treated in an even playing field, but from understanding what we have to offer from our cultural vantage point. And that has never been the case in the food industry. You think about Michelin stars and all of these awards and acknowledgment in terms of what's considered a good restaurant. And there are financial rewards that go along with these levels of awards and acknowledgment. You know, a restaurant that's a three-star Michelin restaurant can charge a lot more money. People go there because they hear of them. And it's a prize.

If we have food writers who are also black, and also coming from the communities that we come from, and they come into our restaurant to evaluate our food, they would have a different perspective of the quality of the food and the service than a white person who's never been a part of our culture. Because when they evaluate restaurants, they are trying to have restaurants be seen in terms of awards, through the lens of a European vision. French cooking, and French way of cooking, is the lens that they use for the Michelin, and everything else, all of these other awards and food writers, they look at everything through that lens. And black people never ever make it, because we're not that. And the thing that we're good at and the things that we have passion with, and that's where we're going to do our best work, it's not valued, because people don't understand it. They are trying to get us to fit.

So when they do see us, they see us in categories. Soul food, Southern cooking, and then they have another category, which is like ethnic food, like my restaurant, Jamaican, and maybe some Mexican restaurants, and even the Japanese restaurants. But Japan, Jamaica is effing food. Why isn't French ... they're a country, just like Jamaica's a country. France is a country. You know, so why are we segregated that way? Throughout the entire country there is this level of segregation. So it's not just on the streets. If you've been in business, and for me as a restaurateur, I deal with it, because I have to open a newspaper, and I see all these writings and things about all these restaurants and celebrity chefs. And they're no better than me, but they're important. And I value them, but I don't feel seen. We don't feel seen.

When people come into our restaurant, including black folks, they too internalize that negative image of who we are. So they don't even want to respect us and what we do. They don't want to pay the wages for the prices of the meals that are ... like for instance, oxtail that we spent like three or four hours to braise and cook, nice tender, that costs a lot of money to prepare that. And we charge significantly less than market rate that they would pay someplace else, but they don't even understand that, and don't value it, because it comes from us. Because they too are living in the community that doesn't value them. So if it doesn't value them, why would they value me as another black person, or anything that comes from me?

And so it's a cycle that goes on and on. So we need to tear down all of these levels, that sometimes they seem benign, and sometimes you don't recognize it, because everybody is focused on the protests and the violence and stuff like that. But what black folks and people of color are saying, it's throughout the entire way of American life that is there. So for me as a restaurateur, yes, I would like you to come in and support my business, but not because of charity, and that you feel like because of today, you want to help today, and tomorrow you don't really ... I want you to come in and experience what we have to offer, and understand what we're doing, like you would any other restaurant, you know? 

GW Chew, founder of the Veg Hub:

Portrait of GW Chew restauranteur and founder of the Veg Hub
GW Chew founded the Veg Hub, a non-profit vegan bistro committed to social good. (Evan Morsell)

As a black founder of a restaurant, [who has] also been in the food industry for a number of years, I will say this: [The] Oakland community has been amazingly supportive. I mean, it's unbelievable. After the first week of protests, somebody put a tag out about all the plant‐based, black‐owned vegan restaurants... We're not a black‐owned restaurant. We're a black‐founded restaurant. Our restaurant's a nonprofit. It's a little different. But, we still were included in that conversation since we were black founded. We literally got on our social media probably about 100‐plus tags from the people, organizations, saying "Support black business. We're going to rally behind these businesses." We've seen love like we've never seen it before.

So, that's one side of it. On the other side of the story, the emotional toll has been real. I think, as a black founder and owner of a food company, our industry, especially in the natural foods, plant‐based world, there’s not a lot of diversity in certain places. I've experienced being the only person in the room. I've experienced racism in the industry. And so, it really did bring emotions that just came up, that I had to deal with and filter through, think through and process. That's a daily mental exploration that I have to go through. Just on personal self-care. You go for a run. You think about the young man that was killed, [Ahmaud] Arbery, while he was running. All those things that you just have to deal with on a daily basis, and all the rhetoric with the politics. But, that actually is superseded when the community just comes in and says, "Hey, we love you guys. We're going to support it. We're going to be here for you. Not only are we going to support you, but we're going to buy some food." It's like a bandaid now that's being uncovered, and people are coming through with love. I think that's the power right now, that I'm so thankful for. But, at the same time, still emotionally challenged, and sometimes frustrated and angry at the condition of our country, and hoping for change.

I think one of my biggest issues in the food industry is the dignity that's not given to the workers. You ask the question, "How can a cop just feel like he can just take the life of a person without any regard in his face or any emotion?" I think it goes back to the mindset of minority communities, marginalized communities as being property, that we're just a tool to keep an industry running. These are people that are really the backbone of our communities and our society. I would say a lot of the workers that I've worked with ... they're some of the smartest and brightest you'll ever have met. Their tenacity, their relentlessness, their hard work and diligence ... I mean, I've learned so much from my workers that I am grateful for.

I hope that this in the food‐serving restaurant world, that this comes to light, that we're humans. We're smart. We're important. We're beautiful. We're not just a labor, just to make this company's restaurant a profit. These are real people with real challenges, with real children that they have to feed, and just to really take that all into consideration as we think about the holistic side of this. It's a big question, not an easy answer. But, I think all we can do is each restaurant can do the best that they can in its own sphere. That's what we're hoping to do with our small restaurant that we have.

We have a very youthful team, mostly millennials that work for us in our restaurant. We have a diverse team, too. Really, we have a rainbow in our restaurant, which is a beautiful thing. Everybody's a minority, but it is a rainbow of different ethnic groups. I can say I think them being in the restaurant and experiencing all the community support softens the frustration. I think if we was in a situation where we wasn't getting the financial blessing that we're getting right now, I think it would be a totally different experience for us.

During COVID, we started a program called Food for the Town. We've been doing that for the last two months now. Our mission as an organization is to democratize healthy food, make healthy food accessible for all people. It's been, too, the whole situation with George Floyd because his death has brought light to systemic racism, obviously within police brutality. But, within our industry, it also brought ... just with the whole COVID connector to that, the highest rates of disease and death has been within African American communities. The reason behind that is food deserts, lack of access, and that's, again, spirited by systematic racism. So, for us, it's really been a big opportunity to advocate for that as it relates to the importance of healthy foods from a health and mental perspective. The better you eat, the better you feel, the better you think.

What we're doing as an organization, we're planning a march on Father's Day weekend, Saturday June 20th. That's something that we're planning for right now, for Oakland. We're going to do that with our restaurant and lend our voice with families from the community.

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Anthonia Onyejekwe and Cecilia Phillips contributed to reporting